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Florida Keys News
Saturday, January 4, 2014
Grouper issues set for debate Tuesday

There growing debate about whether fishermen will be allowed to keep Goliath grouper resurfaces Tuesday as part of a three-day meeting in Key Largo.

One side claims that the fish stock has rebounded to a point where a limited harvest should be allowed. Supporters point to anecdotal reports of the pesky big fish constantly stealing smaller groupers and snappers as they are being reeled to the boat.

The other side contends that the fishery is not ready to be opened, pointing out that the cold snap of 2010 wiped out hundreds, if not thousands, of the juvenile Goliath groupers in Florida Bay and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The lumbering fish would also be easy targets for spear fishermen stalking them on artificial reefs, opponents claim.

The Goliath grouper debate will be one of many South Florida issues that the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils will discuss during joint meetings that start at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and conclude at noon Thursday. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) fishery managers are also participating in the meetings at the Hilton Key Largo Resort.

The Ad Hoc Goliath Grouper Joint Council Committee will review the last stock assessment for Goliath grouper and hear a presentation on recent stakeholder workshops and survey.

A stock assessment of Goliath grouper in 2010 that did not require fish being killed was ruled inconclusive by a group of independent experts, said Florida Marine Research Institute scientist Luiz Barbieri, who worked on the study.

"In my opinion, the last assessment was informative," Barbieri said. "The assessment was enough to say that the stock has recovered."

Barbieri plans to repeat the study with the hope of obtaining better data.

"There are some new developments and improvements in the model in the last couple years," Barbieri said. "It could give us better results."

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, and others have called on fishery managers to allow for a limited take of Goliath groupers, which would let researchers collect size, weight, age and other data.

"They need to do it over a large geographic area to get a broad interpretation of what's going on," Kelly said.

The FWC already allows for a limited take of the gamefish tarpon. Anglers can buy one tag a year that allows them to take one tarpon home with them, if it is in pursuit of a world record.

A limited take of Goliath grouper will be discussed next week, Barbieri said.

Agency representatives will also discuss creating consistent rules for the Gulf and South Atlantic and state waters.

Anglers in the Keys face differing rules depending on what side of Highway 1 they are fishing from. For example, from January through April, anglers fishing South Atlantic waters can't keep any grouper caught. But in Gulf waters, keeping grouper is only banned in February and March.

Keys anglers have been at odds with both the South Atlantic and the Gulf councils over a seasonal ban on black and other species of grouper. The anglers have also called for Keys or South Florida-specific rules when it comes to yellowtail and mutton snapper.

During a joint meeting in February, fishery managers discussed establishing a boundary line for the South Florida rules on both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico sides of Florida. Sanibel Island was proposed as the boundary on the Gulf side, and Jupiter Inlet the cutoff on the Atlantic side.

"We are aware that the Keys fishermen are eager to get consistent fishing regulations throughout the region," said Doug Gregory, executive director of the Gulf Council. "This meeting represents a major effort by the Gulf and South Atlantic Councils and the Florida Fish Commission to attempt to accomplish this."

tohara@keysnews.com

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